Photographer Edward Keating captures the history of Route 66 over the decades as towns along "the mother road" have fallen into disrepair and obscurity.
Route 66 has been forgotten. The once-vital artery connecting Chicago and Los Angeles—and hundreds of towns in between—was America’s Main Street. John Steinbeck famously dubbed it “the Mother Road.”
Passing through and bringing life to towns and cities across the heartland, Route 66 captured the imagination, delivering tourists, families, and misbegotten souls from one end of the country to the other.
Photojournalist Edward Keating was one of those souls. He first traveled the length of Route 66 in 1977, well into the highway’s decline. The road and the towns it snaked through began their downward trend in 1956, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed the Interstate Highway Act. Route 66 was officially decommissioned as a highway in 1985.
Bigger, faster roads were built to bypass the highway. The towns along the way suffered, stumbled, and ultimately shuttered. “I didn’t go to Route 66,” Keating told CityLab. “My ass just wound up there.”
Keating’s first journey along the highway was filled with pain. He was drunk, he didn’t have a job or future, and he didn’t know what to do.
“It was a blank canvas for thoughts and dreams and hopes and disappointments and you name it,” he said. The promise of California proved disappointing, and he ended up, as he says, reaching rock bottom in Flagstaff, Arizona before deciding to reform his life at his uncle’s Santa Monica kitchen table.
He returned to Route 66 20 years later in the early 2000s as a photojournalist with a mission to capture the forgotten towns and people that continue to occupy old Route 66’s sidewalks. “I’m always surprised that nobody had taken this road on photographically as more than just 2,400 miles of amusement park with one roadside attraction after another,” Keating told CityLab over the phone last month.
He’s referring to the multiple rosy, nostalgic works celebrating America’s Main Street. To Keating, that’s not the story. “It’s a total fantasy—when you get out there, so much of it is such a real dodge.”
That’s what Keating aims to capture in his new book Main Street, The Lost Dreams of Route 66, showcasing nearly 100 photos that capture the bleak current manifestations of the old highway.
Even its rosy past has a dark undercurrent. Those diners, motels, and other roadside establishments played played host to rampant segregation. For black Americans, the Mother Road was rife with danger.
But it’s not all bad news today. Several efforts to preserve or revitalize sections of the historic highway are underway. One aims to reconfigure much of it as a National Historic Trail, which could bring federal financing and a new emphasis on tourism. Another will turn swaths of it into a bicycle path.
Neither solution, however, can quickly or effectively restore all 2,400 miles of the old highway to its former glory. For now, the downtrodden subjects and morose nature of Keating’s photos will remain Route 66’s primary inhabitants.
CORRECTION: This piece has been updated to correct the location where Keating says he reached rock bottom, and to fix a mistake in the book’s title.